Rutgers unions rally over contract negotiations

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Chris Fitter, 59, an English professor, speaks during a rally as part of a "Reclaim Rutgers" campaign at Rutgers-Camden on October 23, 2014. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer )

As colleagues in New Brunswick and Newark, N.J., held larger demonstrations, professors and other union members held a small rally at Rutgers-Camden to push for progress in ongoing labor negotiations.

Like many at the Rutgers-Camden rally, art history professor Martin Rosenberg said the university focused on athletics at the expense of academics.

"We're on completely the wrong track," he said. "I don't give a damn about the football team."

Over the course of the hour-long rally, 15 to 20 professors and staff held signs and spoke out against what they called misguided priorities. A coalition of unions representing about 20,000 members organized the universitywide rallies as part of a "Reclaim Rutgers" campaign. Across all locations Thursday, more than 1,000 people participated in rallies, union representatives said.

Contracts for unions affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, representing broad swaths of faculty, administrators, and health-care workers, expired in August and September. Rutgers employs more than 24,400 faculty and staff.

Professors complained Thursday about salary freezes, the level of health insurance contributions, and what they described as a lack of support.

"It really doesn't attract the quality of people we want," said Bill Saidel, a neurobiology professor, who said the biology department has sometimes struggled to come up with the money to continue paying for part-time lecturers.

"There has been nothing out of the president about the value of faculty," Saidel said.

Saidel, Rosenberg, and other professors are represented by the American Association of University Professors; the Rutgers AAUP-AFT represents about 6,600 faculty, adjuncts, graduate students, and others whose contract expired at the end of August.

Complaining of delayed and canceled bargaining sessions, the unions accuse the university of negotiating in bad faith.

The university said in a statement Thursday that it is "hard at work negotiating fair and reasonable contracts."

"Rutgers strives to compensate its employees fairly; we have always placed a high value on faculty and staff excellence, and we have provided our employees with salary and benefit packages that are among the most competitive in the nation for public research universities," the statement reads.

Much of the unions' ire is directed at what they say is an overemphasis on athletics. With the New Brunswick-based athletics program recently joining the Big Ten athletic conference, head football coach Kyle Flood last month agreed to a two-year contract extension that included guaranteed increases totaling more than $3 million over the lifetime of the contract.

This year, his base salary is about $950,000.

"Rutgers has lots and lots and lots of money - for the football program," said Chris Fitter, an English professor in his 21st year at Rutgers-Camden. Fitter said he makes about $90,000 a year, which he compared with similarly long-serving high school teachers in well-paying districts.

According to the university's priorities, Fitter said, "We need more 6-foot-6 illiterates to chase balls around a field."

The money for Flood's contract, Fitter said, could have gone toward funding research assistants or new faculty members.

The university released a statement Thursday saying,: "Any assertion that Rutgers makes athletics a priority to the exclusion of our core mission of teaching, research and public service is factually incorrect. The instructional budget this year totals nearly $795 million - not including libraries and other services that support our academic mission - while the budget for intercollegiate athletics is less than $70 million."

The issues are about more than money, said Julian Burton, a doctoral candidate in childhood studies who is in his third year.

Burton said that the Reclaim Rutgers campaign resonated particularly at the Camden campus, which in 2012 fought a proposed merger with Rowan University. Other professors cited issues of funding and respect for the campus.

"We're still kind of the unwanted poor relation of the Rutgers family in a lot of ways," he said. "I wouldn't have been out here if I just wanted more money for myself."


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